You’re on the subway when you hear the words “It’s showtime!” Suddenly, a crew of dancers is in the car, twisting, popping-and-locking, and contorting themselves around the subway poles to a pulsating beat. Opinions on subway dancing are mixed: some people love seeing the dancers at work, but others hate them enough to scream at performers to get them to move to a different car. The NYPD also falls into the latter camp: Cops have been cracking down on performers for the past year as part of Commissioner Bill Bratton’s commitment to “Broken Windows” policing, leading to an increase in arrests.
But even though most New Yorkers are familiar with the phenomenon, they may not be acquainted with the term “litefeet,” describing the steps and music that many of the subway acrobats employ during their performances.
Litefeet originated in Harlem and the Bronx as a style of dancing with its own moves (like the Chicken Noodle and the Tone-Wop) that you might see at parties, or during halftime at a basketball game. It quickly moved onto the subway, where performers could incorporate subway poles and doors to create more innovative tricks in a more intimate atmosphere and make some money on the side.
In a new short documentary, Litefeet: The Sound of the Subway, filmmakers Ezra Marcus and KJ Rothweiler interviewed some of the scene’s key players, including dancers and musicians, to showcase the history of the subculture and its place in New York City.
“We would love for [the film] to spark a debate in New York and elsewhere about the nature of public performance, like who has the right to do what, and what’s important for New York to cultivate,” says Marcus. “Like what aspects of New York culture are being erased with the city’s recent influx of the wealthy moving in and demanding quiet private space, and the city government’s emphasis on Broken Windows policing. We would love for it to start a debate about that.”
We spoke to Andrew “Goofy” Saunders, the founder of the crew Waffle, and Chrybaby Cozie (a.k.a. Daniel Coye Holloway), the founder of the crew Breakfast Club who’s been involved in litefeet since 2005. Both are featured in Marcus’s documentary, and have plenty to say about the subway crackdown, the best trains for dancing, and why New Yorkers shouldn’t be so quick to judge subway performers.
How did you get started in the litefeet scene?
Goofy: 2007 is when I first started [with] litefeet; I was introduced through the streets, MySpace, and YouTube. It was blowing up everywhere; you would see people dancing on the corner of a block or park. I created WAFFLE in 2011 during the time litefeet was fresh and amazing to commuters on the subway. We would perform with each other every day. We would battle each other, and that's how became friends with each other. We didn't have a crew so I just thought of the idea, which was inspired by a Sister Sledge song called “We Are Family,” and the rest of the name just came together with the crew’s beautiful thinking.
Chrybaby: I’ve been dancing since I was five years old, but I came across litefeet in 2005. The first time I ever saw anything like that, it caught my attention because I had already been dancing and doing hip-hop styles, but I saw the Tone Whop and it stood out; that was the first step that I learned that was a litefeet step. I was the first person to start cultivating litefeet in the sense that I wasn’t an artist, but I was a dancer who absorbed a culture that was already thriving and brewing up. I wanted to maximize on that scene—how could I become more involved in this thing? So I started my own team called Breakfast Club, and we started to cultivate the culture. We took it from parties and basketball games and started doing it in other places.
Goofy (still from Litefeet: The Sound of the Subway)
Is that where dancing on the subway comes from?
Chrybaby: Yes, because outside performance is…New York City is all about that. You see street performers all the time. I got my start performing on the street, dancing outside at block parties, halftime at basketball games. The street was where we put our talent to the test. Imagine dancing halftime at a basketball game where there’s over 200 people in the stands, you know? Smack dab in the middle of the projects, these four concrete bleachers would be filled with people at a basketball tournament called King Dome, and me being 18 or 19, I’m dancing center court. That’s a lot of people, you know?
Goofy: The litefeet dance style is the main reason for our creativity which we brought to the subway. The style is very free, and we incorporated the poles and litefeet moves together to have dancing and entertainment at the same time. Over the course of dancing you would create a new [move] either by accident or just trying a move that comes to mind. The pole tricks aren’t practiced outside but on the subway car. It'll be empty carts or even passengers in the cart when we create new moves; even during a show you'll make a new move. We practiced in different community centers and parks around NYC.
What are your favorite trains to perform on?
Goofy: The Q, L, E and other letter trains, which have more space than the numbered trains.
What have your experiences with commuters been like while you’re dancing—positive? Negative?
Goofy: [In the beginning] people loved it but the increase of litefeet dancers on the train is what made people bittersweet about it. Many dancers followed behind us. We had made the formula for subway performing; many people didn't want to do it because of being judged but that all went out the window once they knew how much money you could make. The reason this entire thing started was, on our way downtown we would dance on the train to make money for dance battles. It helped us become young entrepreneurs instead of asking our parents for money. We invested our money into uniforms, business cards, etc. our goal was to get off the train and ever since then we have been featured in many music videos, commercials, and TV shows.
Which people don't know and I believe they need to because people automatically judge us. Like the Waffle crew is very intelligent and people need to do their research on us; people need to know not all subway performers are rude and nasty. If more people knew the history they would respect us 100 percent but not everyone wants to ask and listen in NYC.
Chrybaby: It was 50/50. There is an audience that frowns upon it, and I’ve seen the best of both. Like, kids, parents, tourists, they really absorbed it, you know? But the people who are trying to get to work, they’re like, “Oh my goodness, not right now.” I’ve felt all the energy. And I’m like, you know what, I’m not trying to hurt nobody, I’m not doing flips on the poles; I’m trying to do my little performance and show y’all that I’m a dancer and trying to make an honest living. I just wish that we had a space that we could fully, fully cultivate this dance and have it be like, a staple where you could come and see litefeet. The trains are that right now, but I wish that there was a facility where we could do this, and it would be legal for people to come check it out and see what’s what.
Chrybaby (still from Litefeet: The Sound of the Subway)
How has the recent police crackdown on subway dancing affected what you do? Are you ever afraid for yourself or your crews?
Goofy: I've been worried about people being arrested for performing on the subway. People are so quick to say we should be dancing outside when you can't even do it without permits for sound and a Parks permit. It's a hassle to go through all of that. A funny thing is the same people arresting us are the same people issuing the permit.
Chrybaby: What [the city is] doing now is they have this event called It’s Showtime, basically giving dancers an opportunity to perform on a different scale somewhere else other than the train. So it’s like you’re saying all you have is the trains; well, we’re giving you a different opportunity. You can go outside, you can perform, and you can collect money from that. Which isn’t bad, but it takes a certain dynamic away from the train. That’s what makes it so special, you know? Performing outside isn’t bad, but it ain’t the train. And you’re asking us to compromise the performance style. The whole dynamic of it, why people give you money, is because it’s exciting. You can’t really do that outside on just the floor.
Goofy, in the documentary you mention that you’ve been picked on at home for dancing, and then get negative or judgy comments from people on the train. How do you deal with that kind of negativity?
Goofy: Being judged and picked on for doing what you love affects me at times but I have to remember to stay strong. Sometimes people don't want to see you do good, especially in NYC. People [would] rather me doing something harmful than something positive but I kept to my roots, where my love was at.
What keeps you dancing and participating in the litefeet culture?
Goofy: What I love about litefeet is how creative it is, and that stood with me forever. The shoe tricks and hat tricks is what makes it even more special; we can create moves with our everyday products and lives. Also how you combine any style with litefeet; no other dance style can do thatt, and this is what makes Litefeet the ultimate dance culture of all time.
Chrybaby: Litefeet was just a gift. I was young enough to catch the seed. I watched breakdancing movies like Beat Street, Breakin’, Krush Groove, and I got to see how hip-hop culture developed and how it started. Look at general hip hop culture: there’s DJing, there’s emceeing, there’s the dance, there’s the art. With litefeet, there is a music, there is a dance, there are producers that are the DJs now, so it’s like we’re following in those steps. It just keeps me grounded and rooted because I’m before everyone. My passion for dance fueled what everyone is doing now. Before there was a lane for litefeet we were walking the beat; we were trying to find out where it was at. And people saw that and wanted to be a part of that, and that’s what people are still doing now. It’s a definite gift. I am very grateful to have come across this dance and be able to add on to it.
(still from Litefeet: The Sound of the Subway)
In spite of the NYPD crackdown, how do you see litefeet growing?
Goofy: My goal is to organize the litefeet culture and go around the world showcasing it on a larger scale. Also let people know the full history of litefeet and I'm tired of litefeet being boxed into one category. We're not only subway dancers.
Chrybaby: I really wish we could have a place, a safe haven, where these kids could come cultivate, create, and do something constructive with their time. I want to create a big brother program, because the majority of litefeet is the youths. And I’m trying to create some ideal citizens where these kids are also dancing, and doing well in school to the point where they can help another child out. There’s that movie School of Rock, and in that movie Jack Black got his own after-school for teaching music, and I was like, wow, even though this is a movie, that’s something I would actually love—a facility where kids could come after school and do their homework and learn about history and learn about a dance that’s taking place right in their neighborhood.
Now that more people are learning about litefeet, and seeing that it’s not just subway dancing, what do you hope they take away from it?
Goofy: What I hope people get from Litefeet is love! It was built off of love and progression, wanting to see more than what we just saw. We thought about a move and made it happen and that's a moment in life we all go through at one point.
Chrybaby: I want them to know that the dancers on the train are not these maniacs they make them out to be. There’s something special called the lock-in, which is the move that pretty much brings litefeet all together—it’s like you throw all your ingredients in a pan, and stir it up and throw it in the oven; the oven would be the lock-in. I think that if everyone got a full taste of it they would love litefeet, because I’ve never seen anything like it. That’s the bread and butter of litefeet, it’s the best part of the whole performance. If people understood a little bit more of what they were seeing—all they see if somebody dancing, they might think it’s breakdancing, but it’s not. It’s subway dancing; it’s litefeet.
Amy Plitt is a freelancer writer in Brooklyn.